On complexity and strategic planning

A couple of weeks ago I organised a half-day workshop for my team and our key internal stakeholders as part of the planning process for next year. I wanted to hear from my stakeholders what they thought about my team and the work we do, as well as to tease out themes and priorities for my team to look at doing in the future. But I wanted to find out this information within the different workplace contexts in which we do things. I also wanted to use the Cynefin framework from Cognitive Edge that I had learned about when I did the accreditation course in July.

I asked Viv and Chris from Emerging Options to conduct the workshop. Both Viv and Chris are exponents of the Cognitive Edge way and are the authorised Australian trainers for the Cognitive Edge accreditation course.

The workshop went better than I had expected. I had excellent participation from the highest levels. The feedback I received afterwards was very positive, especially how the workshop was conducted.

We were also commended for our willingness to encourage such open dialogue with the rest of the organistion. It was certainly my intention to flag very clearly our intention to be seen as an integrated part of the business, and not an isolated organisational silo. Part of that process is openness and facilitating organisational dialogue and collaboration.

For me and my team, the themes that emerged give us some scope to review what we do, re-establish priorities, and give us new opportunities moving forward.

We looked at our work in terms of the simple, complicated and complex domains used within the Cynefin framework.

In simple domains, performing a particular activity or process will bring about a defined result. Basically, if you do A, you will get B. Process-driven activities often fall into this domain.

In complicated domains you analyse the problem called A, and by bringing in expertise or resources, you can identify the solution and solve the problem. There is no new thinking here, just the application of expert knowledge to deal with the problem.

In complex domains, there is uncertainty as to what outcome will occur (if any) by performing a particular action or process. This is what is often called, “the intractable problem”. Generally, it is risky and expensive to try a range of actions in order to test which action might yield the better result. Usually a decision is made to take one action, spend resources on it, and if it fails to meet expectations, the project is dumped all together. Many a pilot project ends up like this!

Complex domains are particularly sensitive to context. What one action in one context brings need not be the same outcome in another context. Basing a decision on what someone has done in a different context (replication) is dangerous if context is not given due consideration.

Similarly, complex problems should not rely on past events to determine future outcomes. Cognitive Edge describes this phenomenon as “the problem of retrospective coherence” which means that all becomes obvious after the event has occurred (but before the event, these signals were not obvious). One of the strategic outcomes from working in the complex space is to try and identify (bring to the surface) “weak signals” and amplify them so that they can be considered in the decision-making process.

In the complex space, one needs to use probes to test to see what works in your own context.

So what did we learn from the whole experience?

It was clear that we had an identity problem – a change of name was offered as a potential solution. We will mull over this problem because identity is something that brings meaning to what we do in the eyes of the organisation.

In a similar vein, there was some ambiguity as to what work we did, what we should be responsible for, and how we communicate that to the wider organisation. Our response to this (our probe) is to launch an internal e-zine and see what reaction we will get from that. We will also use a cartoon, something I alluded to in a previous post, and develop the cartoon story as we progress. While we have a reasonable claim to extenuating circumstances on this one (both historical, and as a consequence of a very new team), we are already working on ways to overcome this problem.

There was also an expectation to do some things that we are either not equipped to do (for example, a lack of resources), or that we don’t yet have the formal authority to proceed.

And, some themes emerged around things we should not be doing.

Now what was really successful about the workshop was the way in which we were able to aggregate and prioritise responses based on activities within the three domains. Identifying the issues in each domain will help us develop improvements and interventions most appropriate to those particular contexts. Knowing that improves our chances of success, particularly in using probes for some of the problems and issues identified in the complex space.

In addition, the participatory and collaborative nature of the exercise within our workplace context means that we have information we can really work with. And we have introduced to the organisation a new way of  looking at problems and finding solutions by using the Cynefin framework.

Our strategic planning is continuing. The workshop using the Cognitive Edge approach has been a rewarding and helpful experience. Not only will the material help in our planning, but it will also help in our execution – and that’s the real nub of the matter!


One response to “On complexity and strategic planning

  1. Hey Brad, how is it going mate? Wondering if you can flick me a link to the action planning sheets for Strat planning. Couldn’t find them on the Cog Edge Wiki

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